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DPP to consult on greater assistance to victims giving evidence at court

19/01/2015

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has today [19 January 2015] published a major consultation on the approach to ensuring victims are properly assisted for the trial process at court and called for an overhaul of the service provided to witnesses to ensure that they are able to give the best possible evidence. The proposals are subject to an eight week public consultation.

New proposals outline for the first time the need to better assist victims and witnesses so they know more about what to expect before they give evidence. If implemented, the guidance will ensure victims are, for example, informed of the general nature of the defence case or if their own character is to be questioned in the witness box. In a rape case a complainant may be told if the likely defence was to be, for example, on the issue of consent or identity. The guidance makes clear that assisting witnesses in this way is not coaching or telling them what to say.

Alison Saunders said: "Asking someone to come to court without any idea of what they face in the witness box does not seem fair to me. To stand up in a formal setting and to be asked sometimes difficult and personal questions in front of a court full of strangers is a very big ask. In coming to court to give evidence, victims and witnesses are performing an important public service and I think we can assist them better - and I know from talking to victims that it is often not knowing what they will face that is most daunting. This guidance seeks to improve our support to victims through this process and they will give prosecutors confidence to do so without fear of allegations of coaching.

"I know that some people will see these proposals as a radical change and that's why I am seeking views from far and wide."

The Director's proposed guidance reassures prosecutors that they can tell victims more of what is likely to happen at court. Specifically, the guidance will instruct prosecutors, both in-house from the CPS and from the self-employed bar, to:

  • Inform witnesses about the general nature of the defence case where known (e.g. mistaken identification, consent, self-defence, lack of intent)
  • Inform witnesses of the fact that third party material has been disclosed to the defence which is capable of undermining the prosecution case (e.g. social services, medical or counselling records)
  • Inform witnesses if leave has been granted to the defence to cross examine them on bad character or sexual history
  • Introduce themselves to witnesses and explain their role
  • Explain court procedure, including the oath taking and the order of the questions from various parties
  • Encourage witnesses to ask the advocate or judge to repeat or rephrase the question should they not understand
  • Remind witnesses that if they cannot recall an answer to a particular question, they should not be afraid to say so
  • Encourage witnesses to refresh their memory by asking to see their witness statement and go through it before answering questions in court
  • Explain the role of defence advocates and encourage witnesses to say clearly whether they agree or disagree with any suggestion put to them
  • Encourage witnesses to ask for a break from questioning should they genuinely need one to restore concentration or compose themselves emotionally

Previously witnesses in court have been largely left to find out what they are likely to face on the day they go to court. The guidance states that going to court is not a memory game and being unable to recall every minor detail is not a sign of weakness. These proposals are aimed at putting witnesses at ease and to help them give their best evidence, which is in everyone's interest.

Alison Saunders continued: "Cross examination within our system is designed to cast doubt on the prosecution's version of events. It's a vital part of the process and all of us in the criminal justice system are committed to making the process fair for the defendant because it is their liberty and reputation at stake. But I do think that we can make the courts fairer for victims and witnesses, while maintaining the vital balance which ensures fair trials for those in the dock. These proposals allow us to give more support to one side without taking away the right to a fair trial for the other.

"The issue of how we can better support victims is one that I have been considering since I became Director of Public Prosecutions over a year ago. I now want to hear from colleagues across the criminal justice system and members of the public - being called to give evidence can happen to anyone. I am convinced that we owe it to those who are willing to come to court to help them as much as we can."

Victims' Commissioner Baroness Newlove said: "Most victims and witnesses don't know what to expect from a courtroom until it is too late. They are thrown into a highly intimidating situation through no fault of their own and then left with little or no explanation to help them through it.

"I've always been clear that there should be better CPS policy on pre-trial assistance and more information on what support is available. Thats why I'm pleased to see Alison Saunders has listened to victims and taken these very positive steps by setting out these guidelines.

"I hope they will enable prosecutors to fully inform victims and witnesses in the right way and help strengthen victims' confidence in the criminal justice system."

Mark Castle, chief executive of the independent charity Victim Support, said:  "As a charity that supports hundreds of thousands of victims and witnesses every year, we know how often giving evidence in court is an intimidating experience. This is why our specialist Witness Service guides victims and witnesses through the court processes.

"We've long campaigned for improvements to the way that the criminal justice system treats victims and witnesses, so we welcome this consultation on measures that could do just that. Victims and witnesses should know what to expect when they are asked to testify in a criminal case and know what their rights are as a witness.

"We will be responding to the consultation in due course, drawing on Victim Support's 40 years of expertise."

Welcoming the CPS guidance, the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC MP, said: "Anyone who has gone through the ordeal of a court trial, especially victims who are called to give evidence as a witness, knows how daunting the process can be. This guidance will help witnesses understand what they can expect when they are in court and also explain the process for what happens next.

"I am very pleased this guidance is subject to an open consultation to the public. The DPP has already written to me to ask for my feedback and I'll be providing her with my thoughts. I encourage the public, especially those who have been through the experience of being in court as a witness, to share their views and help make the system better."

Ends

Notes to Editors

  1. Victim Support is the independent charity for victims and witnesses of crime in England and Wales. Last year it offered support to more than 1 million victims of crime and helped more than 198,000 people as they gave evidence at criminal trials through its Witness Service. Victim Support also provides the Homicide Service supporting people bereaved through murder and manslaughter and runs more than 100 local projects which tackle domestic violence, antisocial behaviour and hate crime, help children and young people and deliver restorative justice. The charity has 1,400 staff and 4,300 volunteers and celebrated its 40th anniversary during 2014.
  2. You can access the consultation on this website.
  3. For media enquiries call the CPS Press Office on 020 3357 0906; Out of Hours Pager 07699 781 926
  4. The CPS consists of 13 Areas in total, each headed by a Chief Crown Prosecutor (CCP). In addition, there are three national casework divisions: Specialist Fraud (formerly Central Fraud and Welfare, Rural & Health Divisions), Special Crime & Counter Terrorism and Organised Crime. CPS Direct is a 'virtual' 14th Area which provides charging decisions to all police forces and other investigators across England and Wales - it operates twenty-four hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
  5. At 31 March 2014 we employed a workforce of approximately 6237 staff (full time equivalent), including around 2226 prosecutors and 3629 caseworkers and administrators. Further information can be found on our website:  www.cps.gov.uk.
  6. The CPS, together with ACPO and media representatives, has developed a Protocol for the release of prosecution material to the media. This sets out the type of prosecution material that will normally be released, or considered for release, together with the factors we will take into account when considering requests. Read the Protocol for the release of prosecution material to the media.